Leaving Shakespeare Beach, Trent swam straight for the previously discussed port side of Gallivant.
Is this time to talk about port and starboard? These are not useless terms, useful only to professional sailors. Port and starboard are highly useful and accurate terms intended to avoid confusion at sea. Confusion in dangerous circumstances can mean injury or death. It’s always a surprise how many people go out on boats on long and potentially dangerous pursuits without understanding this fundamental: Port is always the left hand side as seen when looking forward to the bow from the rear of the craft. Therefore, if you are on the front of a boat, looking back to the rear, port is your right-hand side. They are used because two people facing opposite directions can confuse each other using left and right, confusion means delay, and delay on a boat can mean danger. Using port and starboard means you don’t have to waste time on that useless “do you mean my left or your left” questions. Starboard therefore is the right-hand side of the boat. If you are ever going to go out on a boat you should know this. If you don’t know it, learn it now. Rewire yourself so that when you even think about a boat, you think of port and starboard, not left and right. Digression over, back to Trent, swimming.
The air was still crisp and cool and the sky cloudless as Trent quickly reached the side of the boat, and he moved alongside to take up position one metre off the gunwale, right on the bow wave. Humans mythologise some creatures, the charismatic mega-fauna, horses, dogs and dolphins amongst them. We imagine some relationship, some understanding other than exists in reality. For thousands of years, cetaceans have loomed large in our imagination, eidolons of ultimate freedom, we see that mouth shape, anthropomorphise it into a smile, and project an understanding. Ask people what animal they’d like to be and more would probably reply dolphin than almost any other fauna. We see dolphins and porpoises skimming the bow waves of boats and project ourselves into them. Watching Trent swim onto the bow wave was to see that dolphin dream perfectly illuminated by one of the few humans capable of fully expressing it, like that hybrid we’ve all imagined, somewhere, sometime when we’ve moved through the water.
At a steady rate Gallivant steamed away from the beach, Trent perfectly situated in the slipstream, the rising easterly sun forward over his left shoulder. Damián was situated just beside the port cabin door at the lowest part of the gunwale, with Harley just forward him. Apart from occasional and brief visits aft, they were to remain there for the rest of the swim, working hard, never leaving Trent, never giving less than he gave, just in a different way, a team effort. Owen was forward of Harley, I was aft of Damián at the stern of the boat on the high crew deck, with Owen and I moving forward and aft more, giving messages and information, taking pictures and doing some fetching and carrying.
Only five minutes had passed, Trent had moved hundred of metres off the beach, when Damián wrote his first message “excellent surfing” to Trent on the small whiteboard. For the entirety of the swim Damián and Harley were almost never to leave Trent more than ten minutes without a message on the whiteboard, and rarely left him that long.
Channel Soloists, I have to tell you this: Trent passed the imaginary line delineating the end of the Dover Harbour Wall in just under ten minutes. Mike Oram had told Trent during the briefing that he would have to hold 4.9 kilometres per hour, to equal the existing record.
For most of us that portion of the swim takes twenty to twenty-five minutes, for slower swimmers it takes thirty minutes. For one poor unfortunate this year, they hadn’t passed the harbour after two hours and the Coast Guard called off the swim because they were a hazard.
Behind us the White Cliff’s high albedo reflected the early morning sunlight, westward was Samphire Hoe, the spoil of the Channel Tunnel turned into a coastal park, with Folkestone clear beyond Samphire Hoe in the morning light before any daytime haze descended. The water was ripplely under a gentle Force One breeze, technically described as “light air”, almost perfect, 95 out of a scale of 100. Trent had his first feed at twenty minutes after the start. It literally happened so quickly that I didn’t photograph it. Afterwards Mike Oram told Damián to pass a message to Trent that he make sure to take all his feed.
On the cabin roof beside him, Damián has Trent’s short handwritten list of positive affirmations to be used during the swim, a fascinating glimpse into the mind and operation of what a world champion uses as motivation.
“Only worry about the things you can control“
The sun was now well clear of the horizon. Only at dawn and sunset at sea and in mountains can one get a clear sense of quickly it scribes its arc across the arch of heaven, moving quickly from the watery gold and red of dawn, where one can still look at it, as it is dimmed by the denser atmosphere, before it quickly becomes the white-gold lifegiver.
For the rest on the first hour, apart from the feeds, there was bit of to-ing and fro-ing. Harley was back checking gear and moving more supplies forward, Owen was Tweeting off Trent’s account on a small notebook and I was just taking pictures, watching, and thinking this would be a good day. Trent’s stroke rate, according to my notes, was 64 at the start (32 cycles coaches use as compared to individual arm movements as most open water swimmers tend to use). I had a question for Harley in the first hour, that I hadn’t wanted to ask earlier in case it seemed negative. “What will you do if he slips behind the target and won’t make the record?”. “We’ll keep going”, said Harley, “and treat it as a training swim. We’re here for the record, if we don’t get it today we’ll be back for it”. I thought this was a telling statement, other record attempts have stopped after the target moved beyond reach.
At the one hour feed Trent was three minutes ahead of Stoychev.
Trent’s feeds were taking from two to six seconds. In Channel swimming, fifteen seconds is a fast feed. Fast feeds are essential, and probably the area of greatest errors with Channels swimmers. The day previously Jim Boucher, third crew member for Alan Clack’s solo, himself a two-time Soloist, had complimented Alan and crew on his quick fifteen-second feeds.
With ships looming closer in front, at around the one hour mark Damián passed a message to Trent that the SW Shipping lane was only ten minutes ahead. It was actually about twenty minutes but the point was more to give Trent his progress to focus on.
Trent had travelled six and half kilometres in the first hour. Six. Point Five. Kilometres.
By one hour and thirty Trent’s stroke rate had dipped or settled every so slightly to 62, the breeze had increased slightly to Force Two, described as “Light Breeze”. Passenger ferries were close on the port side, only one kilometre away. On the afterdeck Owen and I were checking the Sandycove SPOT tracker, which we’d brought and started also, it’s easier to follow than Mike Oram’s Gallivant, because there aren’t multiple pages loaded. We also then loaded the new CS&PF swim tracking page which has the Shipping lanes, buoys and lightships and the Separation Zone indicated.
At one hour and forty-seven minutes elapsed, by now well into the South West Shipping Lane, ships passing south behind us now, Mike conveyed the information that Trent was five minutes ahead of Petar Stoychev.
The morning was stunning, golden light on turquoise water, diamonds scattered across the Channel. It had warmed up, the crew had shed jackets and tops.
Just before the two-hour mark, Harley decided to switch Trent to feeding every fifteen minutes instead of twenty. Trent’s feeds, which he’d pre-mixed himself, were a mix of Gatorade, gel and water. No warm water was added, though sitting in the sun the feed bottled warmed up quickly. Afterwards Trent told me he’d mixed enough for eight hours. Channel swimmers will get a giggle from that, the previous day Owen and I had mixed about twenty hours of feeds for Alan, because you never know…
In the first couple of hours particularly as I was watching and photographing Trent, what struck me, looking at the world’s number one up close, was how every movement was both economical and propelling him forward. Nothing in his stroke was impeding his progress, no minor stroke problems holding him back like the rest of us, every action was propelling him forward, his stroke long and graceful yet not overly the front quadrant, his kick variable as needed to adjust his position relative to or in the bow wave. It was a display of pure grace, Trent, as he says himself, is not a power/strength swimmer but one who moves based on stroke efficiency.
By the end of the second hour, Trent charging onwards, we passed the Varne lightship about 1500 metres off the starboard side, a sight usually only seen by swimmers returning on the boat, as the swimmer’s usual path goes initially more north-east toward Calais.
How am I remembering this? I was taking brief notes, just for my own entertainment, occasional words spoken, my weather and water observations and the times of the various photographs, not at that stage thinking of how I could might use them. I had tried to take notes the previous day on Alan’s Solo, but the conditions on the boat were too rough to be able to so do. At two hours and thirty-five minutes, Trent was still seven minutes ahead. At two hours forty-eight Trent requested his feeds be changed to every seventeen and a half minutes. Almost immediately, Trent reported he was peeing too much. I was aft and went forward around the starboard side to call across to Harley that this was good thing, not a negative, when Mike Oram conveyed the same information and Trent was assured as such by Damián.
I mentioned Trent talking, and as Lisa Cummins and many of the Sandycove swimmers say, “shut up and swim“. How was Trent conveying so much information without losing time and distance? His control was such that on each stroke he could comfortably say a word with each breath on his right-hand side:
Change. Stroke. My. Stroke. Feeds. Stroke. To. Stroke. Every. Stroke. Seven. Stroke. Teen. Stroke. And. Stroke. Half. Stroke. Minutes. Stroke.
No break in stroke, no time lost.
At three hours we were well into the Separation Zone between the Shipping Lanes. I’d told Trent he’d know he was in the Zone because on a calm day like this was, the seaweed and debris would increase and he might start to see jellyfish. By this stage, the light was changing, becoming flat and grey, the haze that had gradually built unnoticed behind us was deepening. I told Harley to look astern of us, there was fog developing, invisible to Trent and those following online. This year’s swims that were abandoned just shy of France fresh in my mind, I started to worry. Ahead of us France wasn’t visible, usually a good sign, but England was completely veiled, north and south the world has disappeared, sound was flattening out, the breeze increased again, still Force Two but rising, some chop developed on the starboard side, but Trent was protected by Gallivant‘s shelter.
After three hours Trent reports he is “feeling flat”. And there was still a long way to go.
On to Part Four.